(Andrew Griffin) The world’s spying agencies have tools that allow them to take over smartphones with just a text message, according to Edward Snowden, and there is “very little” that their owners can do to stop it.
The UK’s intelligence agency has a suite of tools that let it listen on phones and their owners, Snowden told the BBC’s Panorama in Moscow. All spies would need to do is send a special text message and they will be able to gain access to the camera and its microphones, the BBC reported Snowden as saying.
The set of tools is called “Smurf Suite”, according to Snowden. Each of the individual tools has their own name — “Dreamy Smurf” lets the phone be powered on and off, for instance, and “Nosey Smurf” lets spies turn the microphone on and listen in on users, even if the phone itself is turned off.
GCHQ even has a tool called “Paranoid Smurf” that hides the fact that it has taken control of the phone. The tool will stop people from recognising that the phone has been tampered with if it is taken in for a service, for instance.
“For example, if you wanted to take the phone in to get it serviced because you saw something strange going on or you suspected something was wrong, it makes it much more difficult for any technician to realise that anything’s gone amiss,” Snowden said.
The comments mirror those by Snowden earlier in the year, when his lawyer said that the whistleblower doesn’t use an iPhone because it “has special software that can activate itself without the owner having to press a button and gather information about him, that’s why on security grounds he refused to have this phone”.
The text message used to gain access to the phone wouldn’t be seen by its user and they would have no idea that it had arrived, Snowden said.
“That’s a specially crafted message that’s texted to your number like any other text message but when it arrives at your phone it’s hidden from you,” Snowden said. “It doesn’t display. You paid for it [the phone] but whoever controls the software owns the phone.”
Snowden said that GCHQ’s counterpart in the US, the NSA, has spent $1 billion on similar tools.
A spokesperson for the UK government told the BBC that it does not comment on intelligence matters but that its spying work is carried out within a “strict legal and policy framework”.